Students Receive Research Awards from Joshua’s Wish to Study Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma this Summer

Joshua's Wish 2018

MACON – Rising Mercer University senior Matthew Halbert and rising junior Caroline Kittrell each received $5,000 Undergraduate Summer Student Research Awards in Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma (DIPG) from local nonprofit organization Joshua’s Wish and are spending the summer studying possible treatments for DIPG.

Joshua’s Wish was formed in 2010 after Trent and Labrina Solomon’s son, Joshua, passed away at the age of 5 from DIPG, an inoperable brain tumor. The organization is dedicated to funding national medical research efforts to find a cure for pediatric brain tumors, to support families of children in Georgia who have cancer and are undergoing treatment, and to raise awareness of childhood cancer.

“Joshua’s Wish is proud to support such outstanding Mercer University students who are researching at some of the top labs in the nation,”said Labrina Solomon, president of Joshua’s Wish. “Joshua’s Wish has awarded 15 summer undergraduate awards since forming the award in 2012. We hope that these students’ summer experiences spark their interest to make DIPG research a lifelong focus and help bring us closer to a cure.”

Halbert, a biochemistry and molecular biology major from Fayetteville, has received an award from Joshua’s Wish for three consecutive summers. This year, he is continuing research on treatments of DIPG with neurosurgeon Dr. Sameer Agnihotri at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh. Specifically, Halbert is focusing on the unique metabolic characteristics of DIPG and how to take advantage of those traits for therapeutic benefits.

“I am both extraordinarily thrilled and honored to receive this research award from the Joshua’s Wish Foundation for the third time because I am excited to explore the new avenues of scientific research that I will discover this summer,” said Halbert.

Halbert, who plans to pursue a Ph.D., is also part of an undergraduate research team at Mercer focused on producing new antibiotic compounds.

Kittrell, a biochemistry and molecular biology major from Columbus, is working with oncologist Dr. Rachid Drissi at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital to investigate two main therapeutic targets, BMI1, a protein produced by DIPG tumors in high quantities, and telomerase, an enzyme universally produced by all cancer cells. The Drissi Lab hopes to find a way to diminish cancer cell proliferation and growth by inhibiting the activity of these two components of the disease.

“To receive a grant from a family who has been personally affected by this terrible disease means so much to me,” said Kittrell. “I will do my best in representing the Joshua’s Wish foundation this summer, and hopefully I can make some small contribution to finding a cure for DIPG. This opportunity will help me decide on a future career path and will expose me to the heart-wrenching realities of care for terminally ill children and the rigors of cancer research.”

Kittrell, who plans to pursue a Ph.D. or combined M.D./Ph.D., serves as philanthropy chair for Alpha Delta Pi sorority, co-director of Leadership Mercer, an Honors Research Scholar, Mercer Ambassador and an SI for general chemistry.

The Undergraduate Summer Student Award in DIPG is open to students from institutions across the U.S. and Canada. This is the seventh year Joshua’s Wish has presented the award, and there have been 10 different recipients, including three from Mercer.

DIPG is a primary brain tumor of the brainstem and represents approximately 10 to 15 percent of pediatric brain tumors. DIPGs are aggressive lesions that are not amenable to surgical resection. Prognosis for these tumors has remained dismal, with a median survival of one year. Less than 20 percent of patients survive two years after diagnosis.

The current standard of care is focal irradiation. Radiation therapy has been the only treatment thus far that has led to clinical improvement and a delay in tumor progression in patients. A better understanding of the biology of this disease and novel therapeutic options is required to improve outcomes for children with DIPG.